In this latest business disruption event, we’ve seen a massive and rapid switch away from centralized office spaces in favor of a work-from-home (WFH) format. We turned to regional business leaders to discuss these issues and how they relate to our ongoing theme of Navigating Disruption.
Hope for the best. Plan for the worst.
Insurance companies are no strangers to risk. While speaking with the president and CEO of an insurance company with employees across six states, we learned about their proactive approach to risk management – establishing written contingencies for everything from disasters or cybersecurity to negative press.
“We have a committee of people in various disciplines across the organization that we meet with on a quarterly basis and discuss all sorts of risks are that our organization faces – [beyond] insurance-type things, because we deal with insurance risks every day. What we try to think about from a risk perspective is we try to get outside the box and think about things like a pandemic. And we have a pandemic plan. We had a plan that we labeled pandemic plan.
“When we made the decision to begin working from home, people were taking their equipment home and setting it up over the weekend. We hit the ground running. Everybody was working from home on that day.”
Many organizations, however, encountered obstacles while getting employees set up to work from home. We spoke with the president of a community bank who addressed their roadblocks.
“We didn’t have enough hardware or enough software licenses for a lot of folks to be offsite immediately. So, we had to work overtime and get those when everybody was trying to get them at the same time.
“And then, kind of simple things that we didn’t think about prior to this situation. Like, how do we effectively keep track of overtime when a part-time worker is working from home? You know the traditional time-clock system wouldn’t work or wasn’t compatible with the setup that these folks were using at home, and so how do we do that? How do we keep people accountable for the time they’re logging for overtime?”
Pros and cons of WFH
The pandemic laid bare several advantages of remote work for individual employees – zero commute time and increased scheduling flexibility. Leaders noticed benefits at the institutional level, such as broader recruitment opportunities, the chance to upscale office space at a lower cost and fewer interruptions from inclement weather.
“If there’s an applicant located in Chicago. Well, do you really need that person to move to North Dakota, or can they continue and work from Chicago?” noted the insurance company CEO.
Regarding weather interruptions, they said, “Hey, those days are over from my perspective. I want everybody to be ready. And if I wake up Monday morning and it’s snowing hard, hey, Monday’s a work-from-home day. We’re not going to miss a beat anymore.”
While speaking with the president and CEO of an engineering and architectural consulting firm in the Midwest, we heard some surprising insights about their switch to a companywide remote work format. After seeing a 10% rise in productivity, they noted the concerns both about an office space change and the need to maintain company culture:
“I would expect that, at our next round of lease renewals, we’ll substantially reduce our lease square footage … I think, as this continues, we need more measures to try to reinforce that team-based set of relationships, because it’s easier to just live in your basement and be more self-focused rather than team-focused.”
In fact, with companies that rely on local customer relations, WFH has some major drawbacks. Our insurance agency source explained how it hindered customer relations for their sales staff.
“On the sales side of it, our agents want to sit down in front of someone and talk about their insurance needs … it gets very difficult to try to build a relationship online – video chats or whatever you might be doing. I think the value really is getting together face to face and having that opportunity to develop that relationship, develop that trust to one another.”
Giving offices a post-COVID facelift
With lingering questions about how many will go back to a centralized working location, already we are seeing impacts with how offices are configured and maintained.
“We are raising the walls on some of our workstations … There is environmental decontamination that can come in and do spraying. I know my facilities manager said, ‘I’m going to go through and replace all the soap dispensers with the ones you wave your hand in front of,’” the insurance company president said.
Other issues, like off-site work or client visits, may not be so cut and dry.
“People are going to have to get more comfortable with getting out and being in front of people, and that’s going to take time and gearing that piece of the business back up. We do a lot of business too, relationship business with a lot of our vendors [that] I feel is critical, as well. So when will they be comfortable?
Even with insights from three companies, there’s clearly no one-size-fits-all solution to the challenges COVID-19 has brought in terms of office space and remote work. Many foresee neither a full return to in-office work nor a complete switch to working from home, but rather a new middle ground. In-person interaction and company culture are vital to countless organizations, but remote work offers flexibility and lower costs.
So, as we move past the pandemic, businesses, industry leaders and employees will have to grapple with a big question: What do we keep and what do we not keep?
Are you a business leader seeking to adapt, change and grow following a business environment disruption? Let’s talk about how PRIME46 research and strategic advice can help.